A Few Words on Zen’s Sex Scandals & What Might Follow

A Few Words on Zen’s Sex Scandals and What Might Follow

James Myoun Ford

Boundless Way Zen

I’ve commented here and there on the larger sex scandals touching on our Zen communities here in the West. I’ve been praised and I’ve been castigated for these comments. I liked praise better.

I can claim for good or ill the distinction of being the first of the Western Zen teachers to write an open letter to the Zen Studies Society board calling for the dismissal of the Reverend Eido Shimano. My letter was quickly followed by a cascade of other letters sent to their board, showing, I believe, if it hadn’t been me, that first letter would have been sent by another, perhaps within days. So, not lots of credit to be earned there. I also joined in signing a letter calling upon the Reverend Genpo Merzel to withdraw from teaching at least for a while in order to pursue serious counseling for his repeated misconduct with students. I gather he chose to follow that counsel for about a week. Since then I have chosen not to write anything about the Reverend Joshu Sasaki, feeling what needed to be said was being said, and that I didn’t have anything particularly useful to add to the mix.

Still, in the wake of this most recent scandal regarding the revelations of Reverend Sasaki’s decades of misbehaviors I’ve been asked by several friends to comment further. I’m not really sure this is the best time to attempt a larger picture view, but. still, I admit, I have thoughts about the larger picture of Zen in the West in the wake of these scandals, and I have attempted some smaller comments at the edges here and there. So, whether timely or not, I have something to say, and I will share these provisional ruminations here.

First, the situations regarding the Reverends Shimano and Sasaki seem from where I stand to be egregious examples of clergy malpractice, and, likely, involving outright criminal behaviors. Whatever other merits regarding their time as teachers, the consequences of their sexual misconduct will be playing out for some time. I am haunted by their victims, and can only hope for some sort of healing. I don’t think the Reverend Merzel’s behaviors rank with these other two, but his behaviors have been sufficiently beyond the pale to merit public rebuke and comments on line that future potential students would be wise to read before committing to study with him.

Beyond this there have been various other scandals and hints of scandals.

And often the only vehicle of accountability is the public forum.

As to why, requires a small digression: While in East Asia Zen disciplines and teachers are part of larger institutions, on the continent taught mostly within Vinaya monasticism, and in Japan within church structures that maintain a non-celibate clergy who are also accountable. (With minor and major lapses over the years, of course. Need I add “of course”?)

Zen as it comes West is anarchic. Individual teachers have come to this country, or people of American and European birth have traveled to Japan or other East Asian countries that transmit the Zen way in its varieties and with differing credentials have come home and taught, often with at best nominal connections to those East Asian communities. Immigrant communities have some structures, such as the Japanese Sotoshu, but rarely extend even comments on what happens outside their enclaves.

As a result there are few larger structures here in the West, and while there are some proto-denominational organizations, none has much authority, and, frankly, with few prospects of acquiring such authority. Even if a couple of organizations do jell, I think our cultural proclivities will simply mean those who don’t fit into those structures will leave and set up shop independently. Think Baptist churches (at Wikipedia, I stopped counting at fifty different denominations, and the list was continuing to go on…)

We’re dealing with a situation where our current crop of teachers can’t even agree on what to call themselves, people who’ve undergone ordinations or authorizations. Priest. Monk. Even the word teacher makes some people itch, including some of the teachers.

If we can’t agree on something so unimportant as titles, it suggests addressing any issue of real import difficult.

Which leads me to the first thing I have to say that is possibly too early to be heard in the spirit in which it is said.

Sex isn’t the problem.

What we see are a couple of actual predators, a larger number of people with bad boundaries and an even larger number of people who’ve been caught up in domestic issues, where sex was just a presenting issue. Now these are real issues and they need to be addressed and I will talk about this.


The problem really is why Zen, and if that why is compelling, how to foster it and those called to what it offers.

With that my first assertion: Zen is worth the trouble.

Zen is a particular school of Buddhism that took shape in early medieval China, bringing elements of Taoism and Confucianism to the mix, all this shaken well, and out of that poured some claims about reality and what that understanding of reality can mean in our lives, and along with that bringing a basket of practices, mokusho chan or shikantaza and kana chan or koan introspection practice, as well as a tradition of spiritual directors, experts in the practice, who have been said to have seen into the heart of the matter, who serve as guides on the way.

I have found the wisdom of Zen life saving. I have found the disciplines worth a life-time commitment.

I’ve also found the rhetoric surrounding the teacher overblown. The deep message of Zen’s liberation is into our ordinariness. We are never something other than people existing within the flow of cause and effect, we are angry or greedy or whatever, and wisdom into our boundlessness and the play of the boundless and the ordinary may mitigate, wisdom doesn’t change who we are in a fundamental way. And this remains true for our teachers as much as for anyone else.

So, I think we need teachers, but they need to be taken down a peg or two. The analogy I’ve used in the past continues to hold for me. In the Christian tradition the myth of Catholic apostolic succession and bishops as magical successors in a lineage gives way to an Anglican view, where the form of bishop is retained but seen as functional rather than magical. We need Zen teachers in succession who see themselves not as magical inheritors but as long time students entrusted with a terrible and beautiful responsibility.

And, of course, that’s happening. An unintended consequence, I guess, of the current rash of sex scandals. Not, I suspect, that there was anything much more in mind at the time than sex. And, so, for the perpetrators the hurt of those who’ve been abused is also an unintended consequence. I feel terrible that many people have been hurt, some terribly, by this abuse of authority. And their healing is primary.

But, if there’s much good coming with this, it is that we will look at teachers from now on with different eyes. Not completely, of course, there are already those who say “real” teachers are incapable of misbehavior. They are simply putting off their own sad discoveries about what it means to be human…


So, here we are. There are these sex scandals. And their consequences will play out. I don’t want by these bare words to convey anything less than the magnitude of some of these events and the cascade of hurt that has and will follow, while acknowledging every situation is not the same, nor should all be reduced to the worst possible imagination.

That said: what next?

Here’s an assertion: People have a right to certain behavioral expectations from those who would teach Zen.

This means people who teach Zen have to step up to the plate and accept responsibility. A little less, “I’m not a priest. I’m an artist” Or, its complementary “What I do is for your good,” whatever that do might be. What we need from teachers is a lot more humility in the face of terrible responsibilities. And if one isn’t able to be a grown up about it, to take off the robe. People should not be Zen teachers if they are not willing to be held to standards, and yes, standards a bit higher than other people.

For good or ill, and probably it would be a mix, we are unlikely to have larger institutions to enforce these things. So, every teacher who teaches and their community however informally organized should have published and workable ethical guidelines. If you don’t have one, feel free to adapt the Boundless Way ethical guidelines. They’re linked at the BoWZ front page. And of course it isn’t just about sex, but what’s confidential, what’s not, as well as how decisions are made. Transparency is needed and public codes are the first step in making what can be clear, clear…

I don’t think these guidelines should be the same for every group. But, every group needs to have guidelines.

Of course, this doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be violated. Groups end up having group minds. And while there can be in fact good things in this coming together, there is only a heartbeat from culture to cult.

So, people who feel called to this project have to accept some personal responsibility. This project is about becoming spiritually mature.

And with all the failures, the possibility remains.

For all of us.

Of winning a victory worthy of all the risks.

(James’ most recent book is If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life)

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